People often say that coming to Lagos can be a life-changing experience. This proved very true for me after I was posted to Lagos for my NYSC.
I'd finished from camp. I had a good job as my PPA placement. I was settled into the fast-paced life of a Lagos boy. And then I had one simple question: Where are the guys?
I got an answer from a friend. Download Grindr.
On that Monday, I did. I downloaded Grindr for the first time, opened a profile, and promptly began perusing the online community of horny gay men.
It wasn't long before I started chatting with someone who introduced himself as Michael. He identified himself as an older man, forties, who runs a restaurant. We moved from Grindr to WhatsApp, and soon began exchanging photos. He sent me photos (below) of an older, good-looking man, and because I have a weakness for the hot, daddy type, I was hooked.
He started calling me. At first, I was startled by the fact that his voice sounded incredibly young for a man in his forties, but it was a lovely voice, so I didn't dwell too much on the incongruity. Plus he was always calling, always nice on the phone, attentive, caring. There was just something sweet about a man of his calibre paying that much attention to me that beguiled my senses. By the time he asked me on Friday to visit him, I was more than ready to. He said he stays in Ikotun. I intended to go see him on Saturday, but he suggested that same Friday. I told him I was at work. He said I could come over after work. I declined, saying I'd have to get home and refresh myself before heading out again, and that that would be too much trouble for me. He agreed that it'd be too much trouble and said I could instead just come to his place straight from work. I agreed.
When I closed from work that evening, as I left the office, I called a childhood friend of mine (let's call him Jerry). The call was really just routine; we had a process where we notified each other of a potential hookup before heading out for it. For some reason I couldn't place, I was apprehensive, and as I updated Jerry with the details of my hookup, I wanted him to discourage me from going. I wanted someone – him – to tell me that I should be going home instead of going to see a man.
But Jerry brushed aside my anxiety and told me to go on and catch my fun. He however asked for the screengrab of the text Michael sent me bearing the directions to where I was going. I sent it to him.
So I got to Cele, and got on a bus to Ikotun. By the time the bus stopped to let some passengers disembark at Iyana Ejigbo, the apprehension I felt earlier had returned. It was like this urgent but ineffectual mental push, that voice telling me to stop, to get down from the bus and go home. But the voice was too weak, not strong enough to get my mind and body to obey.
So I got to Ikotun and got on a keke (per Michael's instructions) to Ijegun. As I was making this trip, Michael was calling me frequently, wanting to know where I was, telling me to be careful and not to get lost. His voice over the phone oozed so much concern. He even wanted to know what I'd like for dinner so he could make it for me. I told him what my favorite meal was, and he said he'd get started on it.
When I got to Ijegun, I called him. He apologized, said he was caught up with some work at the restaurant and that he'd send one of his boys to come pick me up. I said okay. However, I started becoming irritated when at thirty minutes after the call, no one had come to meet me. It was getting on to 7.30pm, and I didn't like being out there in the night, with my worldly possessions – laptop, tablet, nice clothes – possibly presenting me a target for robbery.
Eventually, a boy that looked to be twenty or twenty-one walked up to me. He had a very humble, apologetic disposition, sort of houseboy-ish, and began apologizing profusely for his lateness after I identified myself as the person his oga, Michael said he should come and pick up. We got on an okada and started off.
The further we went, the more apprehensive I got. The surrounding consisted of squalid houses, potholed roads and bushy roadsides. There was also no light, with the occasional house showing the wink of a kerosene lantern or the flash of a rechargeable lamp. The boy with me had introduced himself to me as Samuel, and I kept asking him questions about our location. One of his answers was that we'd just passed Mount Zion School, Ijegun.
We stopped before a gated compound that didn't have any light coming from inside. Michael had said his boy would be bringing me to his restaurant, and I thought it was odd that he couldn't afford steady electricity for his business. Samuel had just paid off the bikeman when I asked him about this; he said NEPA had just taken the light, and that he was sure someone would soon put on the generator.
He gestured toward the gate, and I made yet another mistake in the series of mistakes I'd been making that evening: I started walking toward the compound in front of him. He was supposed to lead me into the house, but somehow, I found myself preceding him into the compound.
The moment I stepped in through the pedestrian part of the gate, that was when everything changed.
I felt a shove at my back and staggered further into the compound. Then I felt a hand grabbing at the waistline of my trouser. Someone slapped me on the back of my head. I heard the gate click shut. And I instantly knew my fate was sealed.
There were about six of them. Young and thug-like. One of them spoke and I immediately recognized the voice – the lovely voice of my Michael, my older-man Michael, Michael the restaurateur. They pounced on me, beating and pummeling me with a viciousness that had me crying in pain. They yanked my bag from me and rummaged through it to discover the things inside: my laptop, tablet, flash drive, modem and some office documents. They seized my wallet and the thirty-thousand-naira watch I was wearing, and pulled off the Yeezy canvas on my feet. Inside my wallet were my ID card and four ATM cards for the banks I used – Stanbic, GTB, Access and UBA.
They began demanding for me to secure my freedom with 50 thousand naira. Of course I had no such amount on me. They told me to call someone. I called my flatmate and family friend, who I'll call Zubby. It was late and Zubby predictably refused to do any bank transfer that late in the night. He asked me what the problem was. I couldn't answer him honestly. He must have caught on that I was in a situation, because he then offered to bring the money to me and asked me for my location.
Seizing on an opportunity, I began shouting into the phone, "I'm at Mount Zion School, Ijegun –!"
My captors snatched the phone from me before I could finish, and began beating me again. Zubby called back, and one of them answered. They got into an argument, and the guy snarled at my flatmate, "Shey you don't want to cooperate! Don't worry, it's your brother's dead body that you'll get soon."
He hung up and they turned their frustration on me once more. By this time, they'd beaten me so much, I almost wasn't feeling the pain anymore. They brandished my ATM cards, wanting to know which accounts had money in them. Only the Stanbic bank account was empty; I had my PPA salary in GTB, my NYSC allawi in Access, and my house rent and the rest of my money in UBA. So of course I didn't mention UBA. I just told them I had money in the GTB and Access bank accounts. They asked for the pins, and I called out a fake set of numbers, told them it was the same for both accounts.
Three of them, carrying my bag with the laptop, left to loot my accounts. The other three included Samuel and 'Michael', who I'd now learned is named Bobby. They had my tablet with them, which they'd had me unlock and were now going through, no doubt anticipating their ownership of it.
About fifteen minutes after the other guys left, the tides shifted again.
Five heftily built men suddenly stormed into the compound. They were waving about firearms and torchlight and shouting, "Everybody, lie down! Lie down now!"
As we scrambled to do their bidding, I glimpsed their uniforms. They were the police. SARS, to be exact. The next several minutes went by in a blur, as the police marched us out of the compound to the waiting van outside. After a flurry of questions, with me shouting my innocence and victimhood (I mean, it was obvious from my battered face), the policemen turned their wrath on the other three. The beating they gave these guys was savage, even more so than the guys gave me. I remember flinching when one of the policemen slapped Bobby, a blow that reverberated in the night. They seemed to know there were other members of the gang not present and wanted to know where they were. Bobby and the other two either couldn't tell them or didn't want to, because they kept crying, begging for mercy and not telling the SARS guys what they wanted to know. So they beat them some more, before bundling the four of us into the back of the van.
Now arrested, they drove us to their station in Ikeja. During the drive, Samuel, who was shackled next to me, began advising me not to reveal to the police the true circumstance of my captivity.
"If you tell them say na gay," he said, "na another problem be that for you and for us."
I saw the wisdom in his words, and thinking ahead to what my cover story would be, I began asking Samuel about his background. He willingly talked to me; said that he was from Onitsha, had lived there and schooled in Madonna University for just a year before dropping out to come hustle in Lagos. As he talked, my cover story took shape.
When we got to the SARS station in Ikeja, the policemen started on a second round of beating, this time with cutlasses. As I watched the three of my captors wail and beg, I didn't know whether to feel joy at their comeuppance or pity for their plight.
After the beating, they took us to the cell section. As we approached the cells, I could perceive the heavy stink of decay and human waste – sweat, urine and fear – coming from within. I shrank from the thought of staying in there alongside all these forsaken of the society. So I began wheezing, while telling the policeman with us that I was asthmatic, and that my inhaler was in the bag my kidnappers took from me, and that my condition would worsen if I was put inside away from good air. The man said okay and instructed me to stay out in the corridor flanked by the cells.
As I settled down on the cold hard floor of the corridor, I knew sleep was going to be far away from me that night. I was sharing the corridor with a couple of criminals who'd been beaten so badly, they'd sustained injuries that, untended, had festered and stank heavily. The men themselves barely looked like they had any life left in them. Mosquitoes whizzed frenziedly about, hungrily feasting on the bounty of exposed flesh, and in the shadows, the gleeful eyes of rats shone as they scurried about for whatever scraps they could get.
As I took stock of my situation that night, I felt very despondent. How had I come from the bright-eyed corper anticipating life in Lagos to this battered pseudo criminal whose eyes were almost swollen shut from his bruises and was about to spend the night in the desolate embrace of a police station? How did this happen?
The next morning was Saturday. The police bundled the four of us out to the main station and asked us to write our statements. Bobby was next to me and echoed the words Samuel told me the previous night, to not tell the truth of what happened. I knew this already and proceeded to write a lie about how I'd been out there in Ikotun to meet a friend, a friend who I didn't know had joined a bad gang, and how upon my arrival to the place he told me to meet him, I was snatched off the street, beaten up and asked to get my captors some money in exchange for my freedom. The friend, I wrote, was Samuel, whose acquaintance I made when we were both residents of Onitsha.
We submitted our statements, and thereafter, the SARS guys came down hard again on the other three. This time, they beat them so mercilessly that Samuel's ear actually began to leak some sort of liquid substance. It was at this point they informed us of the reason they'd been out there in the first place. Apparently, some other guy who'd fallen victim to Bobby and his gang went straight to the SARS station after he was released and reported the case, right down to the exact location where they held him and assaulted him. The same place I was lured to. They showed us the guy's petition and photos of his bruised face.
After the beating, we were bundled back inside, the three to the cells and me to the corridor.
Saturday morning stretched to evening. That was when my flatmate, with some of his friends, came to the station. Acting on some tip as he investigated my disappearance (by this time, Zubby had gotten one of my older brothers involved), he had gotten information that I was under arrest in the SARS station in Ikeja. When it was verified that the person under the police custody was the person Zubby and co. were looking for, the police then went on to tell them that they captured me as part of a kidnapping ring. Zubby asked to see me, and a policeman came to fetch me. He stood nearby as Zubby held me, concern and relief etched on his face.
"What is going on, Freeman?" he queried. "What is going on with you? They told us you are now a kidnapper. Is this for real? Since when did you become a kidnapper?"
For a moment, I was nonplussed, as I realized how the game was changing on me again. It was clear to these SARS guys right from the start that I was a victim. It was right there in my statement. Evident on my battered face, for crying out loud! And yet, instead of letting those facts be, they were engineering their own narrative, no doubt in anticipation of a hefty sum of money for my release.
Then I found my voice and began denying. "That's not true, Zubby! I'm not a kid –!"
"Will you shut up your mouth!" the policeman next to us growled. "Just shut up your mouth before I shut it for you!" There was this menacing look on his face, one that told me exactly how he would shut my mouth if I dared protest my innocence. "In fact, this meeting is over. Oya, you're going back inside!"
He grabbed my arm and marshaled me back to the bowels of the station. This time, he put me inside the cell, the same one where Bobby and co. were in. I'd known that there were other men in the cell during my time in the corridor, but I didn't realize how crowded it was until I was inside. There were no less than 50 men crammed inside that small room. The room stank heavily of unwashed bodies and despair.
Some of the criminals barked at me to move to the back of the cell. I was slowly making my way through the crush of bodies to the back when a voice said out loud authoritatively, "No. Don't go to the back. Come here and stay by my side."
The man who'd spoken was bulky and dark-skinned, and wore his authority over the other inmates like a toga. No one argued as I redirected my steps to the corner where he sat in his makeshift command centre. At first, I feared his magnanimity would come at a price, but as I got acquainted with him, I realized he was just being nice to me. He was called Marshall by the others, a mark of his supremacy in the cell. He was in fact a former policeman who would, together with his gang, get rid of their uniforms at the close of work and take on their night job of armed robbery. Karma had caught up with him one night and he was apprehended.
There were all manner of criminals in the cell: the corrupt house agent who would disappear with the money house hunters gave to him to secure a place for them; the street fighter who used a knife on someone he was brawling with; an upcoming yahoo guy who was nabbed in his fraudulent activities. And then there was me, potentially a criminal – whether a kidnapper or a gay man remained to be seen.
By Sunday, I'd gotten to know a number of the men I was sharing the cell with. They were all eager to talk, to bare their souls of the crimes that had them shackled in this place. Even Bobby and I got to talking. At some point, he apologized to me, said he was deeply sorry for the part he played in my entrapment. He had already suffered so much in the hands of the police, and I suppose that was why I found it easy to accept his apology and forgive him.
It wasn't until Sunday that I realized that I hadn't eaten anything since the lunch break I took on Friday at work. Food however came on Sunday; members of a Redeemed church visited the station with food for the inmates. Then next came Mountain of Fire church members with prayers and food too. In the afternoon, Zubby came with food for me, which I shared with some of the inmates. It felt somewhat surreal to be sharing food with these men whose lives and mine until now had nothing in common.
Finally it was Monday and my third older brother (I have five of them) flew into Lagos from Enugu and came to the station in the company of three lawyers. Talks and negotiations immediately began over my situation, which everybody was still trying to fully understand. Of course my brother was not having it with the police and their talk of me being a kidnapper. So they fetched me and Samuel (who my statement said I knew) to come answer their questions before my brother and his lawyers.
Samuel knew what I'd written in my statement and answered accordingly. But he went on to say that we, him and I, go so way back to the days of our schooling in Madonna University. I never went to Madonna University; my brother of course knew this, and I could see from his expression at this point that he had dismissed Samuel as a liar. He said as much, and Samuel and I were taken out of the office to separate rooms for further interrogation. Samuel's interrogation must have come in the form of torture, if the cries coming from the room he was taken to were any indication. And I was almost not surprised when the policeman with him came to the room where I was with a triumphant smile.
"So you be gay," he said to me with such self satisfaction.
My heart dropped to the pit of my stomach.
"So na gay carry you go there," he said.
"No sir, it's not like that. It's not what you think," I began pleadingly, determined to minimize this damage for the sake of my family.
"Then what is it like?" he snapped. "And this time, better tell us the truth."
So of course I embarked on another lie, about how I was raped by a man much older than me years ago when I was young, and how since then, I hadn't engaged in any gay activities, until I came to Lagos for my NYSC and couldn't resist the urge. It was a shambled lie, one desperately put together to mitigate my association with the crime of being gay. I don't know if the SARS men believed me, and one of them stepped out of the room as I was still rambling on.
"Sir, please," I begged the man I was left with, "please don't tell my brother. I will do anything...give anything if you people keep this from him. I'm a corper, and I don't mind bringing my allawi every month to give you people if you do this kindness for me."
The man nodded as I spoke, his eyes shining with greed at the prospect of owning my government allowance.
"Okay no problem," he said with a final nod. "We will take care of it."
But this cat that got out of the bag on Friday was not going to be shoved back in. Back in the main office, after Samuel and I were taken away, the price for my release had been negotiated to a 100 thousand naira. But then, the SARS guy who left the room after my 'confession' went to the office and revealed the latest development, information that jacked the price up to 150, 000 naira. Before the entire affair concerning my release was concluded, my brother had eventually parted with 200, 000 naira. By this time, I'd become aware of the fact that the police had told him of my sexuality, and so, as I was getting discharged and the policeman, who I desperately begged not to let my brother know, sidled up to me and said, "So we'll be expecting you back with that our agreement, eh?" I stared at him with the kind of look that could kill. I'm still expected to come and bribe you when my brother now knows?
My brother, on his own part, was wearing an expression of a very unhappy man as we stepped out of the station. He was silent, wouldn't look at me, and I walked stiffly beside him, not knowing what to expect. I was free, and yet I felt like time was suspended, silently ticking down to the eruption of another situation.
We stepped past the gate and he turned to me with a flinty expression to ask, "What's this thing about you being gay?"
TO BE CONTINUED.
Written by Freeman